“I support this initiative. It is very much needed, even vital, and I welcome it. Yet, I cannot give it public support. I respectfully ask that you refrain from mentioning my name in this matter.”
Statements along the lines of the above are well-known to social entrepreneurs who consult with Gedolim on the matter of this or that educational or social project. I have heard them myself more than once, in matters directly related to myself or in accompanying others wishing to develop a new project or enterprise. They are clearly the cause of no small disappointment. In a Torah-based community for which the Gedolim are the final word in any public (and, for some, even in every private) matter, a letter of support from one of the Gedolim (let alone signed by several) is an invaluable asset. Refusal to provide it, the more so given the principled agreement of all parties, can be painful and frustrating.
One such frustrated individual, who was seeking to establish an educational institution for English-speaking Charedim, recently vented his vexation over a particular Gadol who had agreed in principle with the initiative but was reticent and ultimately unwilling to sign a public endorsement, making it much harder to present the initiative to the general community. He even wondered, with some bitterness, whether this was not a case of hypocrisy: “Say what you mean, and mean what you say,” as the phrase goes. Is honesty not a core part of our own Torah values? And is it not a legitimate expectation that leaders, who have reached a position of significant influence on Charedi communities, should lead – including initiating processes they consider productive and necessary?
Is honesty not a core part of our own Torah values? And is it not a legitimate expectation that leaders, who have reached a position of significant influence on Charedi communities, should lead – including initiating processes they consider productive and necessary?
My response to his complaint was twofold. First, I noted that he came in with overly high expectations; had he consulted in advance, he would have been warned that these would be the responses. This is how the system works. Second, and more importantly, there is room for defending this approach, which is not bereft of positive aspects. Despite the inherent frustration, the system – private agreement alongside public denial – was not born in error, and it contains a deep understanding of how changes are to take place. Awareness of this can spare us much frustration, and, more importantly, allow many to do what is necessary and vital on the ground – “for our people and the cities of our God” (II Shmuel 10:12).
In this article, I wish to elaborate on the “economy of change” that operates within Judaism generally and within Charedi society specifically. There is no community, state, or nation which does not have such an “economy of change” – a way in which society manages the changes and upheavals of the age. This is still truer in our own hyper-dynamic era, which changes beyond recognition every two decades. Given such a reality, we can hardly stay put in an unchanging state; change will emerge from reality itself. The question is therefore not if we will change, but how.
I will argue that the answer to this important question is a complex response arising from Torah sources – a response that does not fit the progressive approach to social change yet is also not a cut-and-paste answer derived conservative approaches. To this I will add that what goes on in our camp – Charedi communities – reflects what we see from Jewish tradition to a degree and that we should therefore understand it and act accordingly. Our future, and especially the future of our children, depends on it.
A Challenge of Change
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt”l was not a fan of the word “shteigen.” The word, which roughly means “growth” or “progress,” was and continues to be used by Yeshiva students to describe growth in Torah study, and questions regarding the status of a Yeshiva student are often be formulated around the issue. On the other hand, Rabbi Wolbe attested that in Mir Yeshivah in Europe, students would not inquire as to another’s wellbeing with “shteigen” rubric but would rather ask a particular student had changed. The metric for success, in other words, was not external growth but rather internal change: change in prayer, in relations with others, in the character of Torah study.
The difference between shteigen-style progress and actual change is no matter of semantics. “Progress” refers to what somebody does. A person can advance steadily in Gemara study, in understanding the nuances of the Talmudic sugya, or in being able to overcome base urges. By contrast, “change” refers to the person himself at the deeper level, with visibly changed actions being but symptoms of a more fundamental motion deep inside. Of such changes, Rabbi Israel Salanter zt”l famously said that “Just as one cannot see without eyes and hear without ears, so one cannot change without learning mussar.” To create a real change, deep emotional enthusiasm is required, of the sort inspired by some formative event, an unsettling encounter, or diligent study – a study that touches the depths of the soul.
Commenting on the verse “The path of life leads upward for the wise so that they may leave the grave behind” (Mishlei 15:24), the Gaon of Vilna comments: “Man is called a walker, needing to constantly traverse from one level to another. If he does not climb, he will inevitably descent, God forbid, for it is not possible to remain on the same level indefinitely.” The Vilna Gaon thus teaches that there is no neutral state when it comes to humanity. Entropy – the always increasing level of disorder in nature – characterizes human beings no less than it does the world; if we do not ensure we are climbing, the force of change will drive us downwards. Change is thus a perpetual fact of life; our only choice is the direction.
We are somewhat used to this kind of rhetoric, certainly in the context of Yeshiva mussar sermons, in the context of private individuals and their personal growth. But it seems the same principles will apply to a given human society, a community or family, a city or state, which also unceasingly undergoes changes with the times. Throughout history, human societies have experienced deep transformations, Jewish society being no exception to this rule. In light of differences between the Biblical and Mishnaic periods, between the Talmudic era of that of modern times, or between Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities – alongside additional distinctions between a plethora of periods and communities – Jewish public life is clearly not cut from one cloth. It is, rather, a coat of innumerable hues.
The clearly dynamic condition of Jewish life begs the simple question: what is our “economy of change”? How do we manage change and ensure it happens in the most beneficial and appropriate way?
The clearly dynamic condition of Jewish life begs the simple question: what is our “economy of change”? How do we manage change and ensure it happens in the most beneficial and appropriate way? Or in other words, how can the kind of advice we are used to giving individuals – the study of Torah and mussar, engagement in self-reflection, seeing to a supportive environment, and so on – be translated for the public sphere?
Between Britain and France
“A conservative is someone who makes no changes and consults his grandmother when in doubt.” Though clearly meant in a critical and exaggerated sense, Woodrow Wilson’s statement does not fail to capture the conservative spirit, which aims to maintain the good in society and fears its loss by reckless change and hasty reform.
Conservatism and its nemesis progressivism are two contradicting economies of change. Conservatism is characterized by a suspicious attitude to social change. Human reality is highly complex, argue conservatives, and it cannot be studied scientifically in the same way as physics and biology. We cannot know the consequences of significant social reforms, and proposals thereof must which therefore be treated with great suspicion and caution. Conservatism is therefore an economy of change that argues for slowing down the pace of reform, even when change is clearly necessary, allowing time for examining and offsetting potentially harmful consequences. The opposing approach, named after the push for progress, encourages rapid social change and considers the implication of widespread reform as the only way for society to continually develop.
Human reality is highly complex, argue conservatives, and it cannot be studied scientifically in the same way as physics and biology. We cannot know the consequences of significant social reforms, and proposals thereof must which therefore be treated with great suspicion and caution
Perhaps the most significant point distinguishing the two approaches is the attitude towards human reason. For the non-conservative, human reason is the central source of knowledge, through which we can imagine a perfect society towards which to strive. The American philosopher Thomas Paine, among the most enthusiastic supporters of the French Revolution, declared his belief in no religion, claiming instead that “my reason is my church.” The British Edmund Burke, Paine’s disputant and a fierce opponent of the same revolution, claimed that the most important source of knowledge is not reason but experience, the “accumulated wisdom” of society as he put it. He even fiercely criticized the liberal thinkers of his time:
Whilst they are possessed by these notions, it is vain to talk to them of the practice of their ancestors, the fundamental laws of their country, the fixed form of a constitution, whose merits are confirmed by the solid test of long experience, and increasing public strength and national prosperity. They despise experience as the wisdom of unlettered men [.…]
Conservatives stress that reason is not all-powerful. They fear the dismantling of existing social institutions, from family to government, even if we do not fully understand why they are crucial for the social good. Irving Kristol put it this way: “Institutions which have existed over a long period of time have […] a collective wisdom incarnate in them, and the fact that we don’t perfectly understand or cannot perfectly explain why they ‘work’ is no defect in them but merely a limitation in us.” Alongside humility, conservatives stress the importance of gratitude: We are charged with recognizing the good present among us and fear that passion for change will lead to its destruction. Yuval Levin, among the most important conservative thinkers today, said that “To my mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.”
On the other hand, a combination of these traits sometimes leads to a rigidity towards change and a lackluster approach to the future. The conservative disposition described by Michael Oakeshott, one of the preeminent conservative philosophers of the twentieth century, speaks for itself. In his words, the conservative tendency is “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.” The sacrifice of horizons on the altar of familiarity and convenience stability is unlikely to excite.
In terms of public policy, the conservative mindset that takes pragmatic prudence to an extreme is often helpless in the face of progressivism’s energy and enthusiasm. Ideas such as freedom in its myriad expressions, equality in every shape and form, human rights of all kinds, peace movements, autonomy and self-realization, and other principles of the liberal school of thought, present a vision calling for urgent action. Conservatism, to put it mildly, can slow the spread of liberal trends for a time, yet sometimes, as the achievements of the LGBTQ movement demonstrates, this delay can be very brief indeed. Moreover, once social change has been affected, there is little that the procedural conservative (such as Oakeshott) can do or say other than to move on to the next battle.
In a nutshell, these are thus the two central approaches regarding changes in the public sphere, each with its strengths and weaknesses. What does Jewish tradition have to say about this matter? What is the Torah approach to economies of change – not to matters of value per se, but to the very navigation of social change? Our sources appear to provide a complex answer to this question.
A Judaism of Tikkun Olam
If we speak of conservatism and progressivism as matters of temperament, the impression one gains from reading the Torah is a deep aspiration for progress. We are commanded to advance; on this, there is no doubt. From the outset, in the story of the Garden of Eden, the Torah commands Adam “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land and conquer it and rule the fish in the sea and the birds of the air and all life crawling upon the earth” (Bereishis 1:28). This instruction obligates us to fill the world with people, to populate the earth with the Divine image latent in the human form, and to “conquer” it in the name of his elevation. We are charged with developing the land and advancing it, as Adam was commanded: “to work and preserve it.” The achievement of worldly progress, whether physical or spiritual, is a Divinely ordained human endeavor. Even the peak of spiritual accomplishment, the Mikdash that provides a worldly space in which God dwells, was a human act – first of Moshe Rabbeinu and his generation and later of Shlomo Hamelech: “He will build a house for my name and I shall establish the seat of his kingdom for eternity” (II Shmuel 7:12).
The Talmudic Sages thus emphasize the need to repair and perfect the world by means of human action. The world was created flawed, deficient, and imperfect, and the task of perfecting and correcting it was assigned to us – to humankind. According to the Midrash (Tanchuma, Tazria 7), the wicked Turnus Rufus (Tineius Rufus) asked Rabbi Akiva which works are more perfect, those of God or those of flesh and blood, to which Rabbi Akiva responded with the astonishing answer: “Of flesh and blood.” Later in the Midrash we learn that Turnus Rufus intended to undermine Jewish circumcision, which Rabbi Akiva preempted by retorting that works of flesh and blood are more perfect: God created stalks of grain, but only through human acts do they become pastries. In the same vein, Bar Kapara taught that “The deeds of the righteous are greater than the works of Heaven and earth” (Ketubos 5a).
The role of humankind in this labor is not limited to the world, and its main focus is relations between people. Turnus Rufus challenged even this aspect when he asked Rabbi Akiva: “If your God loves the poor, why does He not provide for them?” Rabbi Akiva replied in the same currency: God created a world with deficiencies, including social ills such as poverty. The responsibility for repairing these is placed upon us men and women, who provide for the poor and thus become partners with God in the very labor of creation (see Bava Basra 10a). Avraham Avinu, who brought the revolutionary idea of monotheism to the world, was chosen precisely because of his willingness to implement the social revolution of “the way of God”: “For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of Hashem, to do righteousness and justice” (Bereishis 18:19). A just society, one based on charity, righteousness, and justice, requires the human construction that Avraham Avinu and his descendants are tasked with.
The very covenant between God and the Jewish People is stamped with the seal of completion, perfection, wholeness. Embedded in our flesh, the relationship between us is a connection of repair: We must repair the world in its many layers and make it into a place ready for Divine presence
Prior to repairing the world and society, we are charged with repairing our own selves – as noted above from the Vilna Gaon’s commentary to Mishlei. In the debate with Turnus Rufus, Rabbi Akiva recalled that the mitzvah of circumcision completes man, as God informed Avraham Avinu: “Walk before me and be complete” (Bereishis 17:1). The very covenant between God and the Jewish People is stamped with the seal of completion, perfection, wholeness. Embedded in our flesh, the relationship between us is a connection of repair: We must repair the world in its many layers and make it into a place ready for Divine presence.
Oakeshott’s hallowing of present convenience, alongside the sometimes-pessimistic spirit that pervades the conservatism temperament – Thomas Sowell pins the character of conservativism on a pessimistic view of humanity and recognition of its flaws – thus seem foreign to the Jewish spirit that constantly strives for a better future and an era of redemption. Moreover, this striving draws on a deep, unbreakable connection to a distant past, which continues to animate our present and push us to new horizons of social reform – of justice, charity, and kindness.
Does this mean that Judaism is fundamentally progressive, chasing every new idea of Tikkun Olam and ready to implement sweeping changes in the mold of humanity’s great revolutions? I think such a conclusion would be hasty and unjustified.
“You Shall Not Burn Fire”: A Movement of Humility
The greatest invention in the history of humankind – an invention the Sages attribute to Adam in the Garden of Eden (Bereishit Rabbah 12.6) – is probably fire (a close second, in my opinion, is the invention of writing). Fire does not merely allow us to light up the dark, cook, and keep ourselves warm – it is the foundation for all the modern progress we enjoy in the wake of the industrial revolution. Were it not for fire, we could not conceive of human dominance of the world, of the “great conquest” that continues to take place before our eyes. There is, therefore, enormous significance to the limitation of the use of fire. Avoiding the use of fire is akin to entirely refraining from the greatest labor of creativity in conquering the world on behalf of human greatness.
This is precisely the intention of the Shabbos day. Of all the forbidden work on Shabbos, the Torah singles out the kindling of fire: “You shall not kindle a fire in all your settlements on the day of Shabbos” (Shemos 35:3). The prohibition against work on Shabbos, and especially the explicit forbidding of kindling a fire, presents us with a message of boundaries: Shabbos delineates the boundaries of human creativity, teaching us the great lesson of Rabbi Tarfon: we may “not be free to desist from [the work],” but “it is not your duty to complete it” (Avos 2:16).
Shabbos imbues us with the virtue of humility. Yes, we must labor toward mending the world, but we must also internalize the limits of our humanity and avoid the ever-present trap of “my might and the strength of my hand did all this greatness for me” (Devarim 8:17)
Shabbos imbues us with the virtue of humility. Yes, we must labor toward mending the world, but we must also internalize the limits of our humanity and avoid the ever-present trap of “my might and the strength of my hand did all this greatness for me” (Devarim 8:17). The instruction to refrain from kindling a fire is even juxtaposed with the work of the Mishkan in Parashas Vayakhel, as though to declare that if we wish the Shechinah to dwell among us, we must first learn the virtue of humility. Without it, God declares of the haughty that “I and he cannot dwell in the world together” (Sotah 4b).
Shabbos includes an additional, closely related aspect: it represents completeness, a holy and blessed day in which nothing in God’s world is lacking. Like God’s six-day labor of creation, we cease our work on Shabbos and declare that our world is “very good.” This structure involves something of a paradox: the very act of abstaining from labor leads us to discover a repaired, perfect world. Shabbos, which the Torah also termed a “sign” between us and God, is thus akin to the mark of circumcision. In the latter, too, we do not fashion the completeness of the human body, but rather reveal completeness that was already there by removing that which concealed it. Shabbos, like circumcision, reveals that our labor is aimed at revealing completeness already latent within the world. Completeness is not human but divine; to discover it we need to invest labor, but we also require humility.
It is hardly surprising that in addition to the commandments of circumcision and charity, even concerning Shabbos we find a debate between Turnus Rufus and Rabbi Akiva, sparked by the former’s question: “What is the difference between one day and the others?” (Bereishis Rabbah 11:5). Each of these commandments includes the paradox of human labor that ultimately reveals a Divine perfection already embedded within the world. This is true at all levels of human repair – of the person himself through circumcision, of human society through charity, or of the entire world through Shabbos. In all of these, we combine two internal movements, standing proudly tall in human works while bending before a Divine perfection we strive to reveal.
Shabbos moderates the urge to repair the world. Even as we traverse the days of the week, we are cognizant of the fact that they lead to Shabbos, even counting each to “to Shabbos” (cf. Chasam Sofer, Toras Moshe, Parashas Bo). Our weekday labor is performed in the knowledge that we are working within boundaries and that we must make room for another factor – the Divine factor – in our work. Moreover, Shabbos reveals that even today, with all the deficiencies and problems of our world and society, there remains a dimension of completeness and perfection in the world – a dimension that does not depend on us, and which is expressed every week regardless of what we achieve or fail to achieve. We need to invest real effort to experience this completeness; as the Sages teach, “He who toils on Shabbos eve shall eat on Shabbos” (Avodah Zarah 3a) – but the completeness is there without us. We need but join it.
Humility, a central part of the Jewish incantation, is shared with the conservative disposition. And yet, they are not one and the same.
Between Conservatism and Judaism
While humility is part and parcel of the conservative temperament, it seems that Jewish conservatism is different. Its humility is not pragmatic or epistemological, but rather fundamental to our basic human condition. It derives from a recognition that completeness exists only with God, and that even our power to repair depends on Him: “For He gives you strength to achieve greatness” (Devarim 8:18). It also recognizes that place of man in God’s scheme, no matter how great, is ultimately limited.
While humility is part and parcel of the conservative temperament, it seems that Jewish conservatism is different. Its humility is not pragmatic or epistemological, but rather fundamental to our basic human condition. It derives from a recognition that completeness exists only with God, and that even our power to repair depends on Him
When Rav Kook zt”l, in a wonderfully Burkean text, warned of the danger to good social order latent in an over-reliance on human reason, he added that “The hand of God clings to the ways of human reason, to uplift and exalt it through steps prepared for it by the Reader of Generations From the Beginning” (Ein Ayah, Shabbos 11a). On the other hand, the same belief in the “Reader of Generations From the Beginning” determines that our fear of change and impulse to block it is less rigid and absolute. While respecting an inherited present and ensuring we do not lose the good within, our belief in a historic process orchestrated by God allows us a certain reconciliation with changes. We are, at the end of the day, in good hands.
The distinction between conservative and Jewish humility is present in the approach to religion. Many conservatives were (and continue to be) favorable toward religion. However, for many renowned conservative thinkers, it remains hard to say they “believed” in religion or were driven by the spirit that informs the religious person. They were albeit willing to adopt religion for instrumental reasons – religion is a worthy tool for the preservation of human virtues accumulated over many generations – but did not adopt religion in the deeper sense. “I do not believe in God,” exclaimed Voltaire, “but do not tell my servant, lest he kill me in the night.” In Judaism, religion is not a “conservative force” but rather the determinant of our human agenda; it is not “the experience of previous generations,” but a Divine directive to repair humanity and the world.
The different approaches to religion of conservatism and Judaism inform each one’s economy of change. As Burke writes everywhere, an effective conservative approach must allow for needed change, “to reform in order to conserve.” But often enough, the conservative instinct does, indeed, make it hard to fight social and institutional injustices that require repair. Social change does not come easily, and without a Nachshon ben Aminadav ready to jump in, the sea might never split. Absent constant cultivation of improvement and repair, deeply rooted social injustices would continue to run amuck until the coming of Messiah.
Judaism, meanwhile, can adhere to a heritage of Tikkun Olam, of striving for improvement and protesting the oppression, without being swept up by the stormy spirit of utopian revolutions. It does so thanks to humility and thanks to an inbuilt mechanism of conservation whose very essence is to make room in our lives for God: the system of Halacha
Moreover, in his struggle to preserve the good things of society, the conservative is liable to find himself helpless in the face of his progressive opponent’s idealism. This weakness is prominent today in several areas, perhaps most notably in the rapid decline of family values and sexual mores in the West – changes that swept through society in the space of a few years, and whose consequences are only beginning to show. Procedural conservatism’s economy of change has not withstood the trials posed by modernity, and sometimes it seems the only ones still clinging to yesterday’s family values are religious.
Judaism, meanwhile, can adhere to a heritage of Tikkun Olam, of striving for improvement and protesting the oppression, without being swept up by the stormy spirit of utopian revolutions. It does so thanks to humility and thanks to an inbuilt mechanism of conservation whose very essence is to make room in our lives for God: the system of Halacha. The unique character of Halachic transmission over the generations creates a unique economy of change, allowing both for the dynamism of Tikkun Olam and the stability of traditional values and institutions.
Fixed Torah and Dynamic Torah
Among the core principles of Jewish faith enumerated by the Rambam is that “the Torah shall not be replaced and there shall not be another Torah from the Creator.” The Jewish economy of change starts from an assumption that there is one thing we will never give up. Notwithstanding the challenges of changing circumstances and the never-ceasing flux of life, the Torah is forever constant, emerging unchanged through the great upheavals of human history.
The unchanging nature of Torah is not a matter of preserving the past simply because it is our past, conservation of tribal custom because this is “what we do.” Nor does it draw from a respect for the accumulated wisdom of previous generations, cherished though it might be. The center of Jewish conservatism is the Torah – its commandments and its values, given to us at Sinai. The Torah, and the Halacha derived from the same, thus erects a fence within which we can develop a full, dynamic life and engage in the labor of Tikkun as commanded by the Torah itself. In other words, the Torah provides a fixed, unchanging framework of Jewish life and values. Within that framework, however, we can funnel our creative energies into initiating and cultivating a dynamic society that changes over time, adapting to shifting circumstances while preserving the great principles of Torah inside the fence of Halacha.
What, though, is the source of this dynamic character? How does the Torah framing itself encourage the kind of changes that ensure it remains contemporary throughout the ages? Parallel to the fixed nature of the Written Torah (or Written Law, Torah Shebichtav) we received at Sinai is another Torah institution specifically designed to allow flexibility and change: the Oral Torah (Oral Law, Torah Sheva’alpeh). The spirit of change within Halacha varies according to time and place, from periods of enormous development (as in the times of the Talmudic Sages) to times days of maximal preservation (such as the “chadash assur min ha-Torah” doctrine of the Chasam Sofer and his disciples); yet all agree that the Oral Torah provides the Torah with an element of dynamism, ensuring its capacity for adapting to changing times.
The inner core Judaism thus includes two focal points, two ways by which we receive Divine instruction. One, the Written Torah, is a source of conservation and fixedness, while the other, the Oral Torah, is a source of change and dynamism. Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner explained that the need for dynamism is the reason for the prohibition against writing down Oral Torah, to ensure it never becomes a rigid set of rules, losing its inherent flexibility in the face of changes:
Anyone who does not wish to pervert the truth must reach the conclusion that the Torah’s interpretation was transmitted orally and forbidden to be written in order that it should not be fixed for all generations, and not to tie the hands of the Sages of every generation, preventing them from explaining the verses according to their own understanding. This is the only way to establish the eternity of the Torah, for the changes in the generations, their ideas, their situation, and their physical and moral state, require changes in the law, enactments, and emendations. This wisdom, which is separate from the wisdom of the Written Torah, is handed down to the sages of each generation to interpret the Torah so that the Torah should live with the nation and develop alongside it. Herein lies its eternity. (Introduction to Dor Revi’i, Chullin)
The combination of the Written Torah and the Oral Torah presents us with a paradox that recalls those mentioned above. On the one hand, the Torah is Divine perfection, given to us at Sinai by the hand of Hashem Himself; but on the other hand, the revelation and realization of the Torah is contingent on our own study and development of the Oral Torah. The combination of the two, a fixed Torah that descended from Heaven and the Oral Torah rising from an ever-changing earth, forms the Jewish economy of change mentioned above. We may and must change, but this can only be achieved in a framework of revealing a new face within a fixed Torah – a Torah that can never change and will never be replaced. The result is an economy of change deeply imbued with humility before the eternal word of God.
[T]he revelation and realization of the Torah is contingent on our own study and development of the Oral Torah. The combination of the two, a fixed Torah that descended from Heaven and the Oral Torah rising from an ever-changing earth, forms the Jewish economy of change mentioned above
One application of this principle related to a renowned statement of Talmudic conservatism concerning the reason why the Children of Israel were redeemed from Egyptian bondage. According to the Midrash, the reason for this was thanks to their conservatism: “Why did it say three types of ascending? Against the three virtues which were in the hand of Israel in Egypt and thanks to which they were redeemed – that they did not change their name, they did not change their language, and they restrained themselves from licentiousness” (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:20). Relating to the Midrash, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l explained that although this was a virtue for the generation that left Mitzrayim, in later generations, there is no longer any Halachic duty to maintain traditional names. Indeed, the Jewish People adopted many foreign names, both in Talmudic times and through to our own days. The Sages’ praise for not changing names was only applicable before the Torah was given; afterward, we are made unique by our Torah, and there is no longer an obligation to preserve specifically Jewish names. Notwithstanding the (health) conservative instinct of the Halachic process, some things do change.
How does it work?
Skipping to the Charedi community of the 21st century, we see different, contradictory trends concerning conservation and change. Some communities have zealously clung to the traditions of Europe, even those lacking a clear halachic basis, such as dress, speech (Yiddish), shaving women’s hair, and other customs. By contrast, there are customs that have been entirely abandoned or radically changed within Charedi communities in Israel – the recitation of Piyyutim alongside other synagogue customs, the traditional roles of married couples, many halachic stringencies that were not practiced in the past, and so on. What, then, is the Charedi community’s economy of change in our time?
It seems that the distinction interaction between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah can be discerned in the practice I described at the outset: An official (written) policy that leans toward conservation alongside unofficial (oral) support for change and dynamism. A clear division of labor exists between the Rabbinic leadership, which generally seeks to preserve the existing structure and institutions to the degree possible, and people on the ground pushing for changes in light of the challenges that crop up over time. The parallel to Torah is, of course, far from precise. The Oral tradition continually interprets the Written Torah, which is an entirely different function to that of social leadership today. Yet, the mindset underlying the structure is not dissimilar to the division between the fixed Written Torah and the dynamic Oral Torah. In both instances, the combination of the two creates an economy of change rooted in humility.
Admittedly, there are instances when the straits of change appear too narrow, and that broadening them somewhat could be helpful. In some cases, the tight grip of a conservative leadership can also breed manipulation and abuse – an issue that requires separate treatment. Yes, alongside its vulnerabilities, it is important to understand the system, its character, and its strengths
The partnership between Rabbinic leadership, which does not see its role as enacting change but rather checking and mitigating it, and entrepreneurs on the ground seeking practical solutions to real challenges, creates a conservative dynamic of controlled change. This mechanism provides breathing room for necessary change when the time comes, while not threatening the public structure and institutions that Charedi society wishes to preserve. Admittedly, there are instances when the straits of change appear too narrow, and that broadening them somewhat could be helpful. In some cases, the tight grip of a conservative leadership can also breed manipulation and abuse – an issue that requires separate treatment. Yet, alongside its vulnerabilities, it is important to understand the system, its character, and its strengths.
It is worthy of note that (the aforementioned) Michael Oakeshott described a similar system of government:
[The conservative] understands it to be the business of government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed on, but to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile. […] And all this not because passion is vice and moderation is virtue, but because moderation is indispensable if passionate men are to escape being locked in an encounter of mutual frustration.
I do not know whether such a political system actually exists; more likely than otherwise, it does not. Progressive forces tend to generally strive to replace the government with a more enlightened version, while conservative forces tend to be those in power fighting to preserve the status quo. Cooperation between the two hardly exists. But this is precisely the order in place within Charedi society. The “government” works to conserve, hardly initiating any changes of its own accord. By contrast, many on the ground seek to act and initiate impressive passion, and the role of the Rabbinic leadership is to moderate, sometimes blocking but sometimes approving and supporting. The combination of the two, the recognition of the vitality of the change alongside caution lest the framework collapse, sometimes means that support will not come publicly or officially. Rather than a Written Law, it serves as Oral Torah.
I would like to mention two conclusions. The first is “respect for the establishment,” especially the Rabbinic establishment at the head of the Charedi system. A conservative leadership is vital for any society seeking to preserve the good within it – the more so when this good is a Torah tradition flowing from Sinai to our own days. Even an experienced social activist who knows how needed change is must approach his work with humility – an epistemically conservative humility tied to the limitations of human knowledge as such, and a fundamentally Jewish humility asking us to make space for God in our work. The Rabbinic leadership represents these boundaries, and we must respect them even as we urge for much-needed constructive change.
The handling of dropout youth, sexual assault, job placement, literacy development, and a range of other issues on the private and public agenda of Charedi society emerged and continue to emerge from the bottom up
The second conclusion is that there is much room for positive work on the ground and that moreover, Rabbinic leadership trusts (in measured doses) those on the ground to work energetically in finding solutions to the challenges we face. There is no need to go back to Sarah Schnirer to find examples of welcome initiatives on the ground. The handling of dropout youth, sexual assault, job placement, literacy development, and a range of other issues on the private and public agenda of Charedi society emerged and continue to emerge from the bottom up. Like Sarah Schnirer and the Bais Yaakov movement, Rabbinic agreement, certainly public and written, will usually not be quick to come. We can suffice with oral (or tacit) consent.
I will end by borrowing an insight from the field of common law – a legal system with a great deal of conservatism thanks to its doctrine of precedent, but which also includes impressive dynamism thanks to judicial creativity that breeds new insights and judicial innovation. In characterizing the economy of change of common law, jurist Ronald Dworkin compared the law to a story written in installments. When the judges of each generation come to write the next chapter, they need to look back at the entire previous legal corpus and ensure the new chapter they write is aligned. Leaps in the narrative are not acceptable.
The same is true for us. There is much room for work on the ground, and without such labors we face the danger of stagnation, failing to walk “the path of life that leads upward.” But we must ensure that the changes we seek to implement are a harmonious continuation of previous chapters of the book, rather than leaps that do not pass muster. In this, we attach ourselves to a heritage going back millennia, from the Egyptian Exodus through today, each of us having some part in writing the next chapter in the wonderful story of the Jewish People and its covenant with God. We pray every Shabbos and holiday that God should “give our portion in your Torah.” But it is up to us – each one of us – to seek it out.